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Juneteenth and Other Celebrations and Traditions

June 17, 2022

President Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, which was signed January 1, 1863. Watch Night Service, also known as Freedom’s Eve, is an annual tradition held at Black churches on December 31. Watch Night remembers and celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation, which theoretically freed enslaved people in the Confederate states still outside of the Union during the American Civil War.

With everything, it is important to read the fine print. The preliminary proclamation called upon Confederate states to rejoin the Union in 100 days. If they did not, people enslaved within rebellious states would be freed. The proclamation only pertained to states that were seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in states loyal to the Union. It also excluded parts of the Confederacy that were already back under Union control. Freedom was dependent on a Union victory. It did, however, allow for Black men who had been liberated to join the Union army and fight for the freedom of others. 

Enforcing a declaration is not as simple as turning off a light switch. Not all owners communicated freedom. Some waited for Union troops or the government to come, while others waited for the harvest to be completed. In Galveston, Texas, for example, the mayor was an ex-Confederate who forced freed people back to work. Enslaved people — who heard the news of freedom and sought escape — were hanged, shot, or whipped. After the defeat of the Confederacy, slavery remained legal until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution on December 6, 1865. According to my reading, until then, there were still 100,000 enslaved people from “Kentucky to Delaware.”

  • For further reading, learn about neoslavery from NPR. 

So how was Juneteenth born? Texas was the last state of the Confederacy with slavery. Juneteenth, which is short for June Nineteenth, commemorates when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865. This was two months after Lee’s surrender and two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. When freedom was known, celebrations broke out among the freed people. The following June 19, freed men organized what would become an annual celebration, thus Juneteenth was born. Juneteenth is also known as Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, Liberation Day, and Freedom Day. 

The Juneteenth tradition grew over the years in Texas and spread across the country as Blacks migrated out of the South. Although Juneteenth has been recognized and celebrated annually in some parts of the U.S. since 1866, it is not a celebration that was on everyone’s radar. I became aware of Juneteenth when I was an adult, and I learned about it from attending events. For example, the Port of Seattle has been celebrating the holiday for many years.

Port employees celebrating Juneteenth

The effort to make Juneteenth a federal holiday has been ongoing. In 1980, Texas was the first state to make it a state holiday and other states joined over the years. The holiday received more attention after the Black Lives Matter movement, which gave the effort the final momentum needed. Congress passed a resolution establishing Juneteenth as a national holiday in June 2021, and President Biden signed it into law on June 17, 2021. When the law was passed last year, many companies scrambled to react to the new federal holiday. 

"Juneteenth has never been a celebration of victory or an acceptance of the way things are. It's a celebration of progress. It's an affirmation that despite the most painful parts of our history, change is possible — and there is still so much work to do.”
— President Barack Obama

Juneteenth is celebrated and observed in different ways. One way is with food — be it a barbecue, fish fry, or other cookout — with friends and family. Music, dancing, and games — like dominoes, bid whist, and spades — round out some festivities. Serving red drinks, which symbolizes perseverance and honors the blood that was shed by our ancestors, is another Juneteenth tradition. Fireworks — similar to the 4th of July since it is symbolic of Independence Day for enslaved people — are also common. Many use the day to support black-owned businesses, as a day of prayer, or a day of learning. Some cities — like Atlanta and Washington — have parades and festivals. In Seattle, there are events scheduled over the weekend

African American holidays and celebrations involve food — and lots of it — and dancing and music, which is something most cultures have in common: celebrating with food, dance, and music. Did you know that June is National Soul Food Month and African American Music Appreciation Month? Sunday dinners is a long-standing tradition — in the Black community full of tasty soul food — in some cultures. Craving soul food, but you don’t feel like cooking? Here are a few restaurants in the area:

•    Southern Kitchen 
•    Simply Soulful
•    Fat’s Chicken and Waffles
•    Communion
•   JuneBaby

I had the opportunity to attend the Juneteenth lunch at the Port of Seattle on June 16. While we are not there yet as a society, I am encouraged by the efforts the Port of Seattle has made, including creating the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. At the event, the director, Bookda Gheisar, gave remarks. She spoke of the human ability to rise and celebrate despite the pain and grief of the past. And perhaps this is what bonds us together as a people. This undying hope that “soon and very soon” a “change is gonna come.” And still I rise.

In closing, while we celebrate the freedom that Juneteenth represents, let’s shine light on the fact that human slavery and trafficking is still happening in this day and time. Read more about what Washington state is doing to end human trafficking

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